The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
The Winnowing of John Sermon by the Rev. DWHinkle
Advent 3 Year C 12-16-2018
(Note: I was ordained to the Episcopal Church on this weekend 37 years ago, by Bishop Albert Wynke Van Duzer at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Haddon Heights, in the Diocese of New Jersey on Saturday, December 17, 1981 to be precise. In the past, I have taken St. John the Baptist pointing to Jesus Christ as a model for my priesthood. “Behold, the lamb of God.” Not a bad model for the priesthood actually. But now, I see the Baptist prophet in a different light. Hopefully, this sermon explains why.)
Scripture: Luke 3:7-18 (NRSV)
“7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ 10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
Sermon: If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that John the Baptist expects a two-faced Messiah. One face of John’s expected Messiah levels something. “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.” to quote the King James Version from Handel’s Messiah. This is “leveling language.” The Messiah will level access to the Kingdom of God.
We see Jesus doing this by preemptively forgiving sinners, giving sight to the blind, and healing lepers. These were folks thought to be under the curse of God, outcasts from the kingdom and from decent human society, according to the Deuteronomic understanding of things (Dt. Ch. 28). Jesus leveled access to the kingdom so much that he even told the good religious leaders of his day that tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the kingdom before them! (Matthew 21:31) Scandalous! John sounds much like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount here, counseling people to be generous, advising tax collectors not to collect more than they were authorized, and instructing soldiers to be content with their wages and don’t extort money from the people.
But, John also expects the Messiah to have a second face, a violent, wrathful and judgmental face. John says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
When John says of the Messiah, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire,” we often understand it as referring to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with tongues of fire on the Day of Pentecost. But, he wasn’t thinking of the Day of Pentecost. He was thinking of a Messiah that would pour fiery judgment down upon the evildoers. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
The contrast couldn’t be greater, could it? One moment, John expresses a vision of a Messiah who’ll open access to the kingdom of God to everyone. The next moment, this same Messiah is wielding an ax and a winnowing fork, denying access to the kingdom, and throwing people into the unquenchable fire. This is the god Janus, a two-faced messiah, not Jesus.
Do you see how different these two expectations of the Messiah are? For years I didn’t. I just combined these radically divergent ideas into one composite figure named, Jesus Christ. I had a two-faced messiah and god. If we saw these two opposing characteristics in someone today, we’d call them at least troubled if not psychopathic, wouldn’t we? Yet this is the two-faced Jesus most of American Christianity, including the Episcopal Church, tries to sell to the world. This is the kind of two-faced god we encourage people to worship. We’re evangelizing for the god Janus, not Jesus. And we wonder why church membership is decreasing. People don’t want to follow that two-faced god. I don’t either, not anymore.
What makes this whole passage even more bizarre is the final verse, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” John clearly expects two things from the Messiah: 1st - He’ll gather the wheat (the righteous) into his granary (the Kingdom of God). And 2nd - He’ll burn up the chaff (the evildoers) in unquenchable fire. I don’t think I can take much more of John the Baptist’s two- faced “good news,” no matter how much fun it is to preach.
As John is preaching and calling people to repent and change the way they think, some ask him if he is the Messiah. Yes. Some ask if this deeply conflicted, wild-man prophet, who lives in the wilderness, wears itchy camel hair and eats bugs if he is the Messiah. Like John, these people thought that the Messiah would be two-faced, simultaneously gracious and angry, welcoming and vindictive, forgiving and wrathful. They were anxiously expecting this kind of Messiah. I’d be anxious, too, if I were expecting someone like this. Sadly, this is the Messiah I was raised to expect, and I’ve suffered from anxiety ever since. This is the kind of God most of American Christianity has been promoting for centuries, but, thank God,.. it’s not the kind of Messiah Jesus turned out to be.
Jesus comes to John and is baptized by him. He then goes into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights (which is the Bible’s poetic way of saying a very long time) where he’s tested by the Satan. He returns, calls his disciples, and begins his public ministry. Meanwhile, John continues to baptize and call people to repentance. John though, is critical of Herod, the ruler of the region of Galilee. Herod had taken his brother’s wife to be his own while his brother was still alive and John was calling him out for his incestuous adultery and the other evil things he was doing. This landed John in prison.
While John’s sitting in prison, Jesus is turning water into wine, teaching in synagogues, preaching the Sermon on the Mount, and is busy healing and delivering people. Jesus heals a Roman Centurion’s servant, raises a widow’s son from the dead, and continues to heal and deliver many people from sickness and oppression. Some of John the Baptist’s disciples witness Jesus doing all these things and report back to him.
When John hears what Jesus is actually doing, he’s perplexed, and confused. He sends his disciples back to Jesus to ask him a question; “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Luke 7:19) John’s clearly having second thoughts, because Jesus is only fulfilling half of his messianic expectations. Jesus is only gathering the wheat! He’s not burning up the chaff! Some of the people Jesus is gathering (like the Roman Centurion) are the enemy in John’s eyes. People like this should get the ax! Jesus was even forgiving and healing people that the Bible clearly says were cursed by God, such as the blind, the lepers, the cripples, tax collectors, prostitutes. Jesus was simply not fulfilling both sides of the expected two-faced Messiah.
In his answer to John, Jesus is doing some winnowing, but its not the kind of winnowing John was expecting. Jesus is winnowing John’s, and our, two-faced expectations of the Messiah. He’s winnowing out the judgmental, winnowing out the wrathful, winnowing out the vindictive messiah and throwing that into the fire! At the same time, Jesus is reinforcing the other side of the Messiah John was expecting, the leveler who busts access to his kingdom wide open by giving sight to the blind, making the lame walk, cleansing lepers, opening deaf ears, raising the dead, and preaching good news to the poor.
Finally, Jesus completes his answer to John by saying, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Why would Jesus finish with this? I think it’s because he knew that John would likely be offended with a Messiah that wasn’t judgmental, wrathful and vindictive, who wasn’t going to wreak holy hell on the bad guy Romans.
Jesus knew that people don’t like it when you take away their angry, wrathful god. And this is my experience, too. Sure, we love the Jesus who forgives US, but we really want him to take the ax to THEM. We love the Jesus who rushes to heal US, but we cheer when he winnows out THEM. Stay on your side of the border! But, you see, Jesus doesn’t have two faces.“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5)
So, Jesus doesn’t have a dark side. Depending on your perspective, this can be really Good News, or, if like John, you’re looking for a God to destroy your enemies, like most of American Christianity, it can be offensive. It can cause you to be “scandalized!” (Girard)
The church in America today is at an intersection. One side of this intersection can be likened to John’s conflicted expectations of Jesus. If we continue to worship and promote a two-faced Jesus, a Janus-Jesus, who we use to make us feel good about ourselves and justified in destroying our enemies, the church will continue its slide into irrelevance and decline. I was ordained to the priesthood 37 years ago this weekend. And I think these 37 years give me enough evidence to say this is the truth. We have created a Janus-Jesus constructed in our own two-faced image, rather than the other way round.
Alternatively, the church can allow Jesus to winnow the misconceptions of God from our minds, our hearts and hands until the church becomes the Body of Christ to the world again. Jesus may offend some of our deeply held beliefs in the process, but if being a Christian means to be like Christ, if it means imitating him, isn’t it our only faithful option?
“The Winnowing of John:
How Rene´ Girard helps me understand John the Baptist”
Blog article by Russ Hewitt
The Meeting Place 12-15-2015